Leerie Jenkins, Jr. started at RS&H in Jacksonville in 1972 as a landscape architect, his first job after graduating college. Six years later, a Jacksonville native Joe Debs came home after graduating to join RS&H in hopes of becoming a transportation engineer.
This month, Jenkins and Debs will retire from the Board of Directors of the only company they ever worked for. In their time, they grew the Florida-based firm into a national architecture, engineering and consulting brand, one that has their handprints all over it.
“When we started out, we didn’t really have a company, and then we had a small company,” Jenkins said. “And now here we are today. There have been lots of stories along the way.”
Jenkins helped lead RS&H’s buyback from Hunter Environmental Services in 1990, organizing a group of about 50 investors to purchase the firm and its five offices. Jenkins moved into the CEO and Chairman of the Board positions while Debs elevated to become Transportation-Infrastructure Leader and ultimately Executive Vice President.
After starting as a landscape architect in the planning division, Jenkins had worked his way up to become an associate vice president. In June 1982, RS&H expanded into the Greensboro, North Carolina, market and tagged Jenkins to lead the seven-person office.
By 1987, the office had grown to 121 people. That same year, Hunter Environmental Services, an investment firm based in Connecticut, bought 49 percent of RS&H. The shareholders soon named Jenkins the firm’s chief operating officer and moved him and his family back to Jacksonville.
Jacksonville was where Debs wanted to start his engineering career. His family had been on the First Coast for generations, their grocery store east of downtown serving as a neighborhood institution.
There was just one problem.
“Right as I was graduating, I actually received a rejection letter from RS&H that I still have,” Debs said. “They told me they didn’t have any positions, but the letter was signed by Tom Hills, so I had a name I could call.”
Debs took advantage of the letter and asked Mr. Hills if he could come by the office and visit. He and the engineering team immediately hit it off, and a position was offered after all.
“I wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer,” Debs said. “I walked into a really tough work environment, but I had some great mentors who gave me the opportunity to learn and grow and work on some really big projects.”
Debs’ big break came a few years later in 1981. RS&H was focusing on overseas markets and had only two projects with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) at the time – and was considering turning those projects back.
Debs was tapped to serve as project manager on the two FDOT projects. His first job was finishing Interstate 95 in Martin County. The opportunities kept coming.
“I wasn’t 30 yet when I was asked to go start an Atlanta office for RS&H,” Debs said. “But from the very beginning I got the opportunity to be a lead engineer. That taught me to seize every reasonable opportunity. I was always looking for a way to say ‘yes’.”
‘Failure was not an option’
By 1989, Hunter was selling off subsidiary companies, and a window of opportunity to buy RS&H began to open. Jenkins organized a group of about 50 investors, including RS&H associates David Robertson, Ron Ratliff, Darold Cole and Debs, to see what it would take to buy the company.
At the time, RS&H reported $33 million in revenue and $11 million in backlog, 125 people and five offices. The group of investors – including Barnett Bank – bought the firm in June 1990 for $5.10 a share.
It was a $4.3 million gamble for the group.
“We had shares of Hunter’s stock to sell as part of deal so we could have cash on hand,” Jenkins said. “But we were ready to kick ass and take names. We just never thought we were going to fail. Failure was not an option.”
Now with control of the firm, Jenkins and the leadership team changed the way RS&H did business, moving away from a geographically based model to establishing the practices that make up RS&H today. Debs was promoted to lead the Transportation-Infrastructure Practice.
As COO, Robertson focused on leading inside the company while Jenkins took on leadership positions and built relationships around the state and beyond. He led the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, Florida Chamber and Leadership Florida, just to name a few.
“David and I coordinated extremely well,” Jenkins said. “Nobody was in the lead and nobody was second. We just worked hand-in-hand.”
With Debs running the Transportation-Infrastructure Practice, John Bottaro joined to lead the Corporate Practice and Ratliff the Aviation Practice. Ken Jacobson handled legal counsel and accounting duties with Holt Graves.
Open Doors, Exponential Growth
Jenkins and Robertson believed in keeping their office doors open, as did Debs, who moved into the executive vice president role.
“The chance to move into that role was absolutely fabulous,” Debs said. “I was able to help open our offices around the country. We were just on a rapid growth curve.”
Jenkins believes the secret to the growth may have been that the company was being led by a team who worked hard to build consensus.
“I was the referee – trying to see the whole picture of everything and getting architects and engineers to work in the same direction,” Jenkins said. “The same thing was true with David (Robertson) as COO – he was never going to try and do your architecture or engineering work. But he had such great business acumen that he brought to the table.”
Even slowdowns in the industry and the Great Recession could not keep RS&H from growing. With growth came the priority to keep the culture of family and trust intact.
“My leadership style was focused on the team, which was more like family,” Jenkins said. “We started out with the doors wide open, and we strived to be completely transparent.”
A young engineer named Dave Sweeney took notice of that when he joined the firm in 1998.
“My good fortune was that I fell into the slipstream of these great leaders and professionals,” Sweeney said. “We all have people in our careers and in our lives that impact us and lift us up. Both Leerie and Joe, in their own style and in their own way, have each set an example for me of how to be – in business surely but more importantly in life.”
A Lasting Legacy
As Debs and Jenkins set to formally retire from RS&H this month, both are looking to spend more time with their families and, in the case of Leerie, grandchildren and a growing number of great grandchildren. Debs, who now lives in North Carolina, is working on a project to revitalize his family’s old grocery – DEBS STORE is still readable in faded gold paint on the brick facade.
“It’s turned into a community project as much as a building renovation,” Debs said. “We are aiming for it to become a food pantry and resource center for the whole community.”
When they look back over their last 40-plus years at RS&H, it’s the people in the office they remember more than the projects.
“None of the awards I received were as important as watching the company grow, the family grow,” Jenkins said. “And to watch the growth in our associates — it was gratifying to me that people wanted to stay here. Our people are still our biggest asset.”
RS&H now employs nearly 1,500 associates in more than 50 offices, and it’s those associates who own the firm today. Debs isn’t surprised at the growth at all.
“Over the years we always had a vision for why our company could do more and be bigger than it is,” Debs said. “We continue to have the foundational elements and aspects of a great company that enables us to grow.
“It goes back to those individuals who led the buyback of our company in 1990. I think they knew enough about what they didn’t want to do that they made sure everything we put in place has served us very well.”
Both men credit the Board of Directors and current executive team of Sweeney, Bottaro, Graves, Lisa Robert and Andy Kaminsky – Sweeney became CEO in 2015 – for continuing to grow RS&H while keeping its family culture in place. Sweeney gives all the credit right back to Jenkins, Debs and the rest of the group that gained the company’s independence 30 years ago.
“I think we all know that RS&H is more than a place, and I personally am so grateful that Leerie and Joe worked so hard to make it so much more than a place – a community of professionals that care about each other and raise each other up all the while serving our clients and our communities,” Sweeney said. “Our commitment to them is to continue that mission.”
Jenkins can’t help but see the growth in this generation of RS&H leaders. When he talks legacy, he talks about them.
“All the wonderful people are there under great leadership now with our executive team and our practice leaders,” Jenkins said. “I feel like a proud father. That’s our legacy.”